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May 31, 2006 12:22 PM   Subscribe

How does one prove that all humans see the same colors? Is it possible?

Disclaimer: I am aware this question discriminates against the blind and the colorblind. Please bear with me.

Okay, put on your scientific—and potentially philosophic—thinking caps. This is one of these questions I wondered since I was a kid, and am curious to see what methods, if any, can be used to answer it.

At a very young age, we are all taught that this color:

 



is blue and that this color is:

 



is red.

Our senses appear attenuated in such a way that we all are aware of what colors match well, and what colors clash. Our theories of color apply, it seems, no matter how we perceive the world, but ... can we prove that all of us see the same colors? How do I know that what I know as "green" is the same color in your eyes? For all I know, my "blue" may look like your "pink".

This isn't so much a question of "do we see the same colors?", rather I wonder if we have techniques that we could use to prove that we do. Colors being so intimately tied to the brain, I cannot think of any experiment we could perform to test the theory.
posted by symphonik to Science & Nature (82 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
I swear, paras with background colors worked on preview. Please replace the middle portion of the question with this...

At a very young age, we are all taught that this color:



is blue and that this color:



is red.
posted by symphonik at 12:26 PM on May 31, 2006


My parents often disagree on whether the same car is dark blue or dark green. So, vote mine for subjective (though there is an objective frequency for all colors).
posted by klangklangston at 12:27 PM on May 31, 2006


I think it's pretty clear that most of us "see" the same colors. The real problem, and what I think you really mean to ask, is do we experience colors in the same way, to which I'd have to say that I can't think of any way to prove such a thing.
posted by Doug at 12:27 PM on May 31, 2006


Sort of the question of qualia, innit?
posted by ludwig_van at 12:30 PM on May 31, 2006


There was a display at the Exploratorium in SF that had a range of colored light spots, ranging from orange to yellow to green and then they had a solid spot to match it against. the accompanying text was very aligned with what you're saying.

My fiancee and I picked out completely different spots, and apparently most visitors do.
posted by Gucky at 12:31 PM on May 31, 2006


Doug, that was my first reaction - of course it's the same, since we call call "pink" pink. But what if an infant was always told that what's green to him but pink to everyone else is called "Pink." He'd still say it's pink so he'd be in agreement, but he's seeing something differently.
Very interesting - until you think about light refractions, frequencies and prisms and stuff that I can't explain but know somebody will.
posted by Iamtherealme at 12:33 PM on May 31, 2006


Yeah, the "qualia" debate is probably what you are interested in, because it deals with how inner experience connects with the outer, empirical world.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:35 PM on May 31, 2006


Because our eyes and brains all work in the same way, it seems pretty safe to assume that we all experience "blueness" in the color we all call blue.

There's no reason to expect that anybody views the world in (what I would consider) inverted colors.

But of course we can't know, just as I can't ever really know that you all aren't mindless zombies put here by a mad scientist to trick me, or that I'm not a brain in a vat someplace. If symphonik's pink were my blue and symphonik's blue were my pink, how could we ever discover it?
posted by BackwardsCity at 12:35 PM on May 31, 2006


You can't prove that all humans see the same colors, because it has been proven that they don't. Some have very acute color sensitivity, some have frank color deficits, a very few are completley colorblind.

How we agree on "blue" is simple, and symphonik nails it -- we're taught that color A is one color, color B is another, and those of us fighting deficits cope as best we can, and those with hypersensitivity argue about shades most of us would have trouble distinguishing even when they were next to each other.
posted by eriko at 12:36 PM on May 31, 2006


I have always wondered about this as well. I think it's subjective since i've had the "it's green" "no, it's blue" conversation many times with many people. I wonder if some people aren't able to see variations that others can't pick out.
posted by obol at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2006


symphonik, I know exactly what you're trying to ask -- and I have no idea of the answer, and doubt it can ever be proven either way. The first time this question came to me when I was a kid as well, probably as I was being lazy and laying around looking at the clouds - imagine if my purple is someone else's blue, and my white is someone else's orange - imagine what THAT sky looks like!

When I mentioned this to my classmates, probably when we were doing crafts or something in class, they all looked at me as if I was absolutely insane. Glad to know I wasn't alone. :)
posted by AlisonM at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2006


whoops...I meant "if my orange is someone else's white," but you probably figured that out.
posted by AlisonM at 12:40 PM on May 31, 2006


You're not alone. This question took up the majority of my lunch table's time sophomore year of high school.

We were unable to answer it, or the follow-up, "Do all cows speak in cow, or are there dialects that make it difficult for American cows to communicate with foreign cows?"
posted by occhiblu at 12:45 PM on May 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


I have a friend who is extremely color blind. She sees most colors as shades of grey. And yet...among those grey shades, she prefers "blue" to yellow, red or green. She can tell which greys are blue and which are orange. She wouldn't have known what she was seeing was grey if she hadn't taken a barrage of tests years ago. BTW, some shades she doesn't perceive as any distinct color, and will ask what they are.
posted by clarkstonian at 12:47 PM on May 31, 2006


That qualia link is fascinating. I'm gonna have to spend some time digging into it.

So far these are great responses. Curious to see what else gets posted. Oh, and AlisonM nailed the exact reason I asked this question. :)
posted by symphonik at 12:49 PM on May 31, 2006


As you may already know, this is a long-standing philosophical problem (often referred to as the inverted spectrum or inverted qualia problem), and people use it to make arguments that consciousness is irreducible to behavioral/physical/functional states. There's an intricate writeup about the philosophical angle here.

The problem with empirical investigations of this is that no matter what experiment you do, someone can still reply with "sure, two people may have the exact same responses/patterns of brain activation/whatever in response to red, but how do you know that they're seeing the same red?"

So, yeah, we'll never reeeally know. (it's an epistemological problem, really - you can't access another person's mental states on an experiential level, period.) However, unlike much of the rest of the brain, the physical and neurological organization of the visual system has been studied in great detail and is pretty well-standardized across individuals, so assuming you think that conscious states are causally linked to physical states of the brain, it makes sense to infer that people see approximately the same colors.
posted by introcosm at 12:50 PM on May 31, 2006


I was concerned about this when I was a kid, but soon forgot it all when I became even more concerned that I was the only person who was shaped like me (two eyes, nose, mouth, two legs, arms, etc) and that everyone else looked like some sort of alien only that our minds would fool us into thinking that everyone else looked like us. I thought I could see what things really looked like by squinting or by quickly looking at someone.

It got to the point that I started casually dropping how many arms, toes, or ears I had into casual conversation. My parents thought I was just being specific ("That's more than I could carry in my two arms!") and needed glasses to fix the squinting but when the truth came out it was time to go to the kiddie headshrinker. I'm glad this happened before the age of medicating kids, as who knows what I'd have been put on. My young mind was eventually put at ease and here I am, a productive member of our two legged society.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 12:50 PM on May 31, 2006 [4 favorites]


Yeah, this is an age-old question. ludwig_van has it with the qualia link.

Just the other week, me and three others were having a vehement argument about the color of a cabinet. Two of us thought it was brown. Two thought it was grey. We even went to lengths of grabbing other things in the room and saying "Do you agree this is brown? yes? Now watch as I hold it up next to the cabinet and see how it matches! What? It doesnt match??"

There was no resolution except everyone walking away thinking others were crazy.

This brings up related questions for me: We can identify colorblind people because at some point they confuse things or seem to have less color-resolving power than the rest of us (remember the letters hidden among gently-covered rocks?)

How would we identify that there are people among us who instead of "red" see a much wider spectrum of colors there: that is, what we call brick red and fire red are two wildly different colors for them. Would they just always wonder why people always used such rough descriptions, kind of like people always saying black or white for light and dark colors and never making a distinction between blue or red? Are there hyper-color sensitive people among us?
posted by vacapinta at 12:50 PM on May 31, 2006


clarkstonian, do you know what kind tests they gave her to help her tell what she was looking at was grey?
posted by symphonik at 12:51 PM on May 31, 2006


I HAVE ALWAYS WONDERED THIS. I'm so glad I'm not the only one!
posted by fabesfaves at 12:54 PM on May 31, 2006


My boy Ludwig spent a little bit of thought on the necessity of shared colors in the assembled "Remarks on Colors".
posted by piro at 12:55 PM on May 31, 2006


Part of it can be cultural. If you ask a person who grew up in Japan what color a green light in a traffic light is, they will say blue. For whatever reason the transition between blue and green is at a different point in Japan than in the US.
posted by ShooBoo at 12:59 PM on May 31, 2006


I do think that it's qualia you're interested in. You might also consider reading On Being Blue by William Gass which is about, well, being blue, in more ways than just this one, but that too. It's good.

I've been involved in more than one conversation about this, all brought on by my own color-blindness. I see a very colorful world, and very often I think that I'm not color-blind at all, but I sure am. (Here's the standard dot test for color-blindness.) My experience is that I have trouble with the categories that everyone else is taught. For instance, although I know that grass is green, the color that I see falls very firmly into the orange range for me. I know enough not to call grass orange, but not everything is so iconically labelled, so I will often not identify the color of something unfamiliar because I can't be sure that I am correctly categorizing it. The reason I think that this is interesting for this debate is that colors seem very much to me like simply a semantic issue for me, but for some reason the semantic categories seem both strangely fixed (grass is always orange for me; there is a definite category of color called orange) and resistant to learning (grass looks orange, no amount of talking about green grass makes it appear so).
posted by OmieWise at 1:03 PM on May 31, 2006


No person has ever been able to attest what another person sees. We do not have access to the nervous systems, eyes, optic nerves, and visual cortices of other people. Even if we did, such access would be filtered through our own such organs.

At best we can rely on reporting, including, in the case of colour deficiency, reporting from the rare group of people with one colourblind and one normal eye who can tell us about either eye’s stimuli.
posted by joeclark at 1:04 PM on May 31, 2006


As a bit of a derail, if you want to blow your mind a little, consider tetrachromats. These are people (and some animals, apparently) who perceive four primary colors (red. blue, dark green, light green), not three. From their perspective, regular folks are colorblind. The condition is very unusual—something like one in 10,000, IIRC.

Imagine how weird it must be for everyone to say "these two colors are alike" when you can see that they're plainly different.
posted by adamrice at 1:07 PM on May 31, 2006


I was concerned about this when I was a kid, but soon forgot it all when I became even more concerned that I was the only person who was shaped like me (two eyes, nose, mouth, two legs, arms, etc) and that everyone else looked like some sort of alien only that our minds would fool us into thinking that everyone else looked like us. I thought I could see what things really looked like by squinting or by quickly looking at someone.

It got to the point that I started casually dropping how many arms, toes, or ears I had into casual conversation. My parents thought I was just being specific ("That's more than I could carry in my two arms!") and needed glasses to fix the squinting but when the truth came out it was time to go to the kiddie headshrinker. I'm glad this happened before the age of medicating kids, as who knows what I'd have been put on. My young mind was eventually put at ease and here I am, a productive member of our two legged society.


OH THANK GOD SOMEONE ELSE DID THIS
posted by Jairus at 1:07 PM on May 31, 2006


My young mind was eventually put at ease and here I am, a productive member of our two legged society.

Two-legged?
posted by The Bellman at 1:13 PM on May 31, 2006


How would we identify that there are people among us who instead of "red" see a much wider spectrum of colors there: that is, what we call brick red and fire red are two wildly different colors for them.

I don't think I'm particularly color sensitive, but those are really different colors. Like an iris and a blue hibiscus are different.

But didn't Gucky's Exploratorium experice prove that we don't see exactly the same color?
posted by dame at 1:15 PM on May 31, 2006


What if all of our favorite colors were exactly the same, though we see them differently? For instance, my favorite color is blue, yours is red. However, in reality, my blue and your red are the same color.

What if pleasantness was a quality that existed independantly of subjective taste. Blue is always more pleasant than red, however you see blue as red, wheras I see blue as blue.

Also, have you ever really looked at your hand, man?
posted by lyam at 1:18 PM on May 31, 2006


Most of the references I can find on the subject of what colors some cultures see are abstruse as hell and assume you've read all the copious citations. But here's an interesting entry from The Straight Dope that touches on this question a little more accessibly.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:20 PM on May 31, 2006


This quote in particular the link I gave above) addresses an aspect of this that I've been thinking about lately:
H.A. Gleason notes, "There is a continuous gradation of color from one end of the spectrum to the other. Yet an American describing it will list the hues as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, or something of the kind. There is nothing inherent either in the spectrum or the human perception of it which would compel its division in this way" (An Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics, 1961). Similarly, Verne Ray says "there is no such thing as a natural division of the spectrum. Each culture has taken the spectral continuum and has divided it up on a basis which is quite arbitrary"
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:23 PM on May 31, 2006


Yes, Italians differentiate blue and light blue / turquoise as completely separate colors, rather than shades of the same color.
posted by occhiblu at 1:30 PM on May 31, 2006


Qualia do not exist. (Or do they?)
posted by louigi at 1:36 PM on May 31, 2006


Where's painquale? We need to have this out.

If you want to read what many philosophers have said about this, look specifically at the "inverted spectrum" problem. David Chalmers has been one of the most active philosophers on the subject (though you should probably skip the first section of his "Conscious Mind").

If you want to be freaked out, some people make the very appealing argument that the only way around the inverted spectrum problem (which you're asking about) and the zombie problem is to deny that such a thing as conscious experience actually exists. This is what painquale believes, and it's wrong, though, so don't worry too much.
posted by ontic at 1:37 PM on May 31, 2006


Wow, weird timing.
posted by ontic at 1:38 PM on May 31, 2006


A bit off-tangent but as a kid, I used to think how "lucky" we were that water was transparent and not opaque or colored. From there, I started thinking about what this world be like if say clean water was inherently an opaque brown. Rain, oceans, lakes, drinking water - all of it brown instead of transparent. From there, how would humans have evolved/adapted assuming the this ubiquitous H2O molecule on earth had a brown character?
posted by junesix at 1:47 PM on May 31, 2006


This is a really interesting thread.

I thought about this a lot as a kid, as well - though that may be because I see colour slightly differently from each eye. My left eye sees greens more; things look slightly "cool". My right eye sees the world as "warmer" - reds seem to stand out more. It's not a huge difference, though.

I have no idea if this is common or not - I've never bothered to look into it as an adult. My husband says he sees things the same out of both eyes, and he's slightly colourblind. Does anybody else have this?
posted by meringue at 2:09 PM on May 31, 2006


Yeah, this is an old question, given we're talking about its abstract form designed to be no more and no less the matter of qualia.

It's also a completely useless question, in my opinion. I don't know what it could possibly mean to say that two things are different in a way that they could never be shown to be different. It's a distinction that isn't a distinction.

But this very specific question in the context of contemporary science is no longer the philosophical question of qualia. You could refine your question so that it is; but the question itself is naive and superficial (that's why you and everyone else thought of it when they were children) and the naive and superficial answer is for the most part available to us or will be. Color vision is a physiological process the details of which continue to be discovered. We know a great deal about the front-end of the process. You can say that two people see the same color because they are using the same visual and brain structures to perceive them and the physiological result is objectively the same.

That won't get at your notion of the qualia experienced by the homunculus sitting in the dark in Descartes' theater looking at the screen and saying "Oh, that's blue". But then nothing will. Ever. Most likely because that little man doesn't exist.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:09 PM on May 31, 2006


Junesix: my understanding is that the only reason we see in the "visible" spectrum in the first place is *because* that is the spectrum through which water is transparent. Early life (which is in the water, remember) wouldn't evolve photoreceptive cells in spectra that weren't reaching them.

So, if water were opaque and brown, we'd probably just see in whatever spectrum water was transparent in that universe.
posted by BackwardsCity at 2:11 PM on May 31, 2006 [2 favorites]


Oh, hell, I guess somebody has to mention Linguistic determinism and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which hold that the way we percieve color is to a large degree determined by language.

That is, if your language has a color for orange, then you see it. If it doesn't, then you don't, unless somehow an expert. For instance if standing before a periwinkle and a lavender wall, could you tell the difference, or would you just see purple? Some languages have more color words than others, which allow native speakers to "see" more colors.

I'm going to largely crib now from this excellent page on the subject. In English, for instance, we have 11: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, brown, grey, black, and white.

But other cultures have more and less, and their meanings vary slightly. In a much-discussed and debated 1969 book called Basic Color Terms Berlin and Kay argued that color names in languages are not random, but rahter exsit along a constant continuum. That is, if a language has only 3 color wors they will always be black, white, and red. If it has 5 they will always be black, white, red, yellow, and green. And so forth. It progresses like this:

For instance:



WHITE
BLACK

Stage I


9 languages:
7 New Guinea 1 Congo 1 South India


WHITE BLACK
RED


Stage II


21 languages:
2 Amerindian 16 African 1 Pacific 1 Australian Aboriginal 1 South
India


WHITE BLACK RED
GREEN

Stage IIIa


8 languages:
6 African 1 Philippine 1 New Guinea


WHITE BLACK RED
YELLOW

Stage IlIb


9 languages:
2 Australian Aboriginal 1 Philippine 3 Polynesian 1 Greek (Homeric)
2 African


WHITE BLACK RED
GREEN YELLOW

Stage IV


18 languages:
12 Amerindian 1 Sumatra 4 African 1 Eskimo


WHITE BLACK RED
GREEN YELLOW
BLUE

Stage V


8 languages:
5 African 1 Chinese 1 Philippine 1 South India


WHITE BLACK RED
GREEN YELLOW
BLUE BROWN

Stage VI


5 languages:
2 African 1 Sumatra 1 South India 1 Amerindian


COMPLETE ARRAY OF COLOURS

Stage VII


20 languages:
1 Arabic 2 Malayan 6 European 1 Chinese 1 Indian 2 African 1 Hebrew
1 Japanese 1 Korean 2 South East Asian 1 Amerindian 1 Philippine



Also lots more on the philosophy of color at the Stamford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
posted by ChasFile at 2:12 PM on May 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


In sum, I guess my point is that in answering - in the course of some hypothetical experiment - the interogative "Tell me what color you see," the word 'tell' is as frought with difficulty as the word 'see'.
posted by ChasFile at 2:20 PM on May 31, 2006


Well from the physical side of things, our eyes are simply detectors that are sensitive to light between about 400nm and 700nm. We have come up with a notation system called colors that help us describe mixes of different wavelengths of light that we are detecting with our eyes and subsequently interpreting withour brains.

If you want to prove that my perception of blue is the same as yours. One could probably shine light in people's eyes of different colors and look to see the patterns of resulting brain-wave activity. Not quite proof, but better understanding of the perception of color. Looks like academics have done this sort of thing:
Howard RJ, et al: The functional anatomy of imagining and perceiving colour. Neuroreport 1998; 9:1019–1023
posted by jduckles at 2:25 PM on May 31, 2006


Total self-link, but here's a blog post I wrote about these very topics.

I wasn't gonna post it but then both qualia and tetrachromats came up in this discussion.
posted by BaxterG4 at 2:34 PM on May 31, 2006


Well, Sapir-Whorf is more misleading than enlightening and, at any rate, it directly contradicts what linguistics has learned about color terms. The significance of that research is that colors are not relative and purely a function of language. People see the same colors. Whether a culture has fewer or greater of number of colors named colors varies in a regular way. Nothing about that says that real people in the real world see different colors. It doesn't even mean that a culture doesn't make a color distinction if it doesn't have a particular term providing the distinction. There are plenty of ways to make the distinction without creating a new word to do so.

To repeat: that linguistics result strongly indicates the non-relativism of the experience of color vision.

I'm not sure why you interpreted it the other way, unless prior to learning about it you had the expectation that the number of basic color terms across languages didn't vary at all and so the result seemed in comparison to expectations to be relativistic. But the historical context is quite the opposite. Most expectations were for more relativism, not less.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:38 PM on May 31, 2006


jduckles's comment reminds me that if you're interested in color vision, the very first thing you need to understand is that color is not a physical property, it's a synthetic perceptual property. jduckles's description is correct, but you really need to pay attention to his phrase "mixes of different wavelengths".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:43 PM on May 31, 2006


Color, Consciousness, and the Isomorphism Constraint:

The relations among consciousness, brain, behavior, and scientific explanation are explored within the domain of color perception. Current scientific knowledge about color similarity, color composition, dimensional structure, unique colors, and color categories is used to assess Locke's "inverted spectrum argument" about the undetectability of color transformations. A symmetry analysis of color space shows that the literal interpretation of this argument -- reversing the experience of a rainbow -- would not work. Three other color-to-color transformations might, however, depending on the relevance of certain color categories. The approach is then generalized to examine behavioral detection of arbitrary differences in color experiences, leading to the formulation of a principled distinction, called the isomorphism constraint, between what can and cannot be determined about the nature of color experience by objective behavioral means. Finally, the prospects for achieving a biologically based explanation of color experience below the level of isomorphism are considered in light of the limitations of behavioral methods. Within-subject designs using biological interventions hold the greatest promise for scientific progress on consciousness, but objective knowledge of another person's experience appears impossible. The implications of these arguments for functionalism are discussed.
posted by Gyan at 2:49 PM on May 31, 2006


Re: Bligh: I was simply introducing the relativism-determinism debate, and trying to awaken people to the fact that how we communicate about color also has a very large impact on how we see it. My invocation of Berlin and Kay and linguistic anthropology in the same discussion as Sapir-Whorf was to demonstrate that color is to a large degree a cultural construct, much the same way other "universals" like numbers are. That these findings support determinism or relativism is immaterial to the basic point that we think in language, and therefore thinking about mental constructions of color requires thinking about the langauge of color. If my 2-paragraph gloss of 60 years of linguistics and anthropology conflated a few of the issues, I appologize.

That said, your assertion that linguistic evidence points to no influence between language and color is, however, patently absurd. Anyone who's traveled to Japan and seen what color means "go" on a stoplight there can tell you that green is different color for different cultures.

Nothing about that says that real people in the real world see different colors. It doesn't even mean that a culture doesn't make a color distinction if it doesn't have a particular term providing the distinction.

Tell me, how much burnt sienna did you see today? And how much yellow? Close your eyes and picture and off-white-gunmetalish-blue. Now close your eyes and picture red. Which was easier? Which image materialized first? Which held the firmest, and which one's hue seemed to oscilate? Which one would you have an easier time communicating to a hypothetical color researcher, if trying to compare notes? Which would you be able to find quickest on a color chart?

If we lack a perceptive or prototypical frame for an object, we often have a very difficult time seeing it. Continuing the above example, lacking a native word for "blue," the Japanese often use the American import "Boo-Roo" (lacking, as they also do, an 'L'). Does this mean they simply don't see the IBM logo? Of course not. But it certainly means that the lack of a salient marker for what Americans consider "blue" influences how they see it and think about it.
posted by ChasFile at 3:22 PM on May 31, 2006


[I]f water were opaque and brown, we'd probably just see in whatever spectrum water was transparent in that universe.

Actually, the sensitivity of biological structures to EM radiation is probably more due to the temperature of the Sun than the properties of water. The sun radiates most of its energy between wavelengths of about 400 and 800 nm, which corresponds nicely to what we think of as "visible light". Now, absorption by water vapour in the atmosphere means that a some of the higher-wavelength end of that (what we call infrared) doesn't reach the ground, but that's a very small effect compared to the fall-off of solar radiation in the infrared.

</derail>
posted by Johnny Assay at 3:26 PM on May 31, 2006


I've enjoyed this puzzle for many years also. Here is an abstract view,

1. Colour is one subset of the great amalgam of input a person may be capable of recieving - one part of experienceable reality.

2. All people percieve reality filtered through their own unique brain patterns - determined by genetics and experience.

3. It follows that colour, like all other input, is processed differently in different brains, however subtle be the differences.

As to the nature of the difference, and if it is possible to ascetain, or understand, I doubt it.
posted by MetaMonkey at 3:33 PM on May 31, 2006


"As to the nature of the difference, and if it is possible to ascetain, or understand, I doubt it."

It wouldn't be that hard to tell what the differences were, just cut open the brain and look.

What this question come down to a confusion between the subjective and the objective.

Color experience can be completely explained by science. It explains why we experience the colors we do, (3 different kinds of cones processing 3 different wavelengths of light, blah blah blah), It explains people who are colorblind experience color differently, and basically everything else you would like to know about color.

The answer science gives to the question does everybody see "blue" in the same way is; Yes, if Two people's brain processes the optical information in the same way, then they see blue in the same way.

This answer however isn't emotionally satisfactory because it is only objectively true. We want to experience the other person's "blue," but of course we cannot do that. In the end we just have to come to terms with the limits of subjective knowledge.
posted by afu at 4:26 PM on May 31, 2006


Oliver Sacks wrote a bit about experiencing color -- there's one section in An Anthropologist on Mars and in The Island of the colorblind. If you enjoy twisting your mind about to try to figure this problem, you'd probably enjoy the rest of Anthropologist quite a bit as well.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:37 PM on May 31, 2006


"and trying to awaken people to the fact that how we communicate about color also has a very large impact on how we see it." (emphasis mine)

But it doesn't. You've wrongly interpreted the color terms research. Looking at your link, it seems the wikipedia on this agrees with you. But for the most part, your view and the wikipedia's view contradicts everything else I've ever read on this. Sapir-Whorf can be said to say either something fundamental and far-reaching or trivial and self-evident about human language and thought. The far-reaching version is a strong relativism where language is an unconstrained cultural construct that determines an associated cognition of experience. The weak version is trivial and self-evident: people and cultures vary in the biases that shape how they experience the world.

"That said, your assertion that linguistic evidence points to no influence between language and color is, however, patently absurd."

I didn't deny influence. I denied strong relativism where language is arbitrary and wholly determines the experience of color perception.

The strong relativism argument which was Sapir-Whorf as, I believe, Whorf intended it and which is, I'm certain, it's popular manifestation, is deeply related to the 20th century relativism movement whose torchbearers were cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropology had moved to a strong relativism which denied any sort of "human nature" and thus, implicitly or explicitly, any sort of universalism in culture and, subsequently, language. Sapir-Whorf reflects this trend nicely. But at the very same time, linguistics was moving in the opposite direction with its development of a universalist human language grammar and relatedness of all human languages.

So let's look at this color terms research in this context. From the perspective of the dominant cultural anthropological theories at the time, the variation of color terms across cultures should have been arbitrary, dependent upon accidents of history and as functions of what is culturally important. Cultural anthropology wanted to deny that there is a universal "red" experience among humans. But this color terms research thwarted that expectation rather than confirming it. The research found some unexpected uniformity in all human languages with regard to the number of color terms and which colors correspond with these groups. This was not relativistic, it was universalist.

Is there still relativism implicit in this? Well, yes, weak relativism in exactly the same way that there is some sort of cognitive difference between how someone in one culture with a common distinct word for something and someone else in another culture lacking a distinct word for something. How could that not be the case? But just as the experience of schadenfreude existed for anglophones before anyone decided to import the German word for the experience, so too do the experiences of different colors for different people regardless of whether they have distinct terms for them or not. What you and that wikipedia entry say about this is very unambiguously wrong, in my opinion. This sentence, ". To English speakers, these pairs of colors [red/pink and orange/brown], which are objectively no more different than light green and dark green, are conceived as totally different." is false. We're more aware of the difference between red and pink and less aware of the sameness of red and pink than Russians are, but they see the difference exactly as we do and we see the sameness exactly as we do. It's a matter of emphasis, not quality.

How this related to the color terms research is that the implications of the research is that there is an organizing principle in human language with regard to color. Therefore, there is a commonality among all human beings with regard to the experience of color as it manifests in language. Coupled with what we increasingly know of the physiology of color vision, the idea of a strong relativism in the realm of color vision gets pushed out of the realm of acceptable scientific theory and into the realm of sophomorism or crankery. You're misleading the questioner by emphasizing this and asserting otherwise.

The strong relativism version of Sapir-Whorf and color vision has been soundly debunked all over the place by linguists. English, in fact, has a large number of color terms that make qualitative, not merely quantitative, distinctions between color. Saying anglophones see "light blue and dark blue" with the implication that we see those as just shades of the same thing and no qualitative distinction is to ignore the large number of distinct color terms you'll find in, for example, art or design or fashion. Turquoise is not blue, it's turquoise.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:52 PM on May 31, 2006


I think the answer is: we don't. I used to have a skirt that my mother and I disagreed on the color of (and I saw it VERY CLEARLY as one color).

Also: what color is Mountain Dew? Not the bottle, the drink itself. I think it's clearly yellow, but others have told me it's green.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:12 PM on May 31, 2006 [1 favorite]


I can prove the contrapositive, in that my partner and I greatly differ on our impressions of the colours yellow and orange.
posted by Mr. Six at 5:25 PM on May 31, 2006


Mountain Dew is yellow. Mellow Yellow.
posted by emelenjr at 5:28 PM on May 31, 2006


The make-it-stop-bugging-me answer:

If it has any effect whatsoever in the world, then the difference caused by that effect can be detected.

If you are fairly certain that there is no way to detect it, then you are fairly certain that it has no effect on anything. And if it has no effect on anything, then the answer doesn't matter :-)

(The exception is things that could have an effect that is limited to another world, such as the afterlife)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:59 PM on May 31, 2006


"Do all cows speak in cow, or are there dialects that make it difficult for American cows to communicate with foreign cows?"

piro's boy ludwig might answer "if lions could speak, we still couldn't understand them."
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:07 PM on May 31, 2006


I design custom checks for a living, and am constantly describing colors to people over the phone - "I want green checks." "Do you want a light green or a dark green?" If the answer is, "I don't care." then we're done, but frequently I end up having quite detailed conversations. Ultimately I write the orders up using PMS color codes, but in talking about color I find myself using terms like warm or cool, dull or bright, muddy or clear, and lots of terms that reference nature - sunny, leafy, specific flower names, etc.

I guess my point is, there're a lot more attributes to how we perceive color than just the color itself - how opaque it is, the texture of the surface it's on, etc can really affect your perception of it.

I do think some people who aren't colorblind are nonetheless unable to see as wide a range of colors as others. For instance, I can see the subtle difference between various PMS color swatches sometimes when my co-worker can't. I presume this is a function of genetics and probably age.
posted by joannemerriam at 7:05 PM on May 31, 2006


I see slightly different colours with each eye. It is only really noticable when looking at brown, and only if I'm actually trying to test my eye/colour discrimination. I suspect one eye is slightly more sensitive to the red spectrum, and the other to the blue-green.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:38 PM on May 31, 2006


Yeah, fff, I have that too. One eye is "warmer" than the other, like in color temperature terms, along the orange/blue axis. This is most noticeable when I first wake up.
posted by kindall at 7:52 PM on May 31, 2006


Our visual systems don't all work the same way, even discounting color-blindness or other pathological conditions. Many woman have four photopigments, some men have only two. (full study)
posted by nev at 7:53 PM on May 31, 2006


It is very common two have one cool eye and one warm eye.

The information on the development of color language could use some further exploration. To say that the first two words are “black” and “white” is imprecise I feel. More accurate would be to say “dark” and “light,” words we use to describe value. This is the primary delineation in our visual perception because the human retina has far more rods, used to perceive value, than cones, used to perceive hue.

Then, it is said, adding a third word gives us “red”. This too is inaccurate I feel. Rather the word should be “saturation.” Black and white exist on a spectrum of completely desaturated greys. As we move from this in to the realm of colors the cones of our retina are utilized. The fact is different wavelengths excite the cones different amounts. Of the pigments likely available to primitive cultures red is the one that stimulates cones the most. Thus it is to be expected that the perception of what the word describes would center on red.

Green makes sense as a fourth or fifth word because as well as being quite common in plant life it allows colors to be discussed as warm or cool. Yellow as a forth or fifth word I find more surprising but it is a primary and does allow for colors that are both highly saturated and have a very light value. My guess is that when only one of the two is present in a language the word centers on either a cooler yellow or warmer green.

Blue next completes the primaries.

Brown describes partial desaturation, effectively a midpoint between the saturated warm colors and black.

The rest are all mid-points between words previously defined. My guess would be that language will continue to subdivide in this way until the limits of human perception are reached. Already we hyphenate words to create new mid points. Yellow-green and blue-green are already both crayon colors.
posted by subtle_squid at 11:20 PM on May 31, 2006


"the perception of what the word describes would center on red" should be followed by: but still cover saturation in any color.

also I find it strange tha we have "brown" to describe the region between warm colors and black, but between cool colors and black we still use hyphenations like "dark-green" and "navy-blue"
posted by subtle_squid at 11:27 PM on May 31, 2006


OmieWise (or any other color-blind MeFites): How does the canonical rainbow look to you? I'm sure you've been taught the ROYGBIV order is "correct," but if our green looks orange to you....
posted by kittyprecious at 7:33 AM on June 1, 2006


FWIW: my names for colors were greatly changed by taking a course on Color at university. I never use "fashion" names for colors (e.g.:turquioise"), but rather say "it's red, with some black, blue and a touch of white" or something like that.
posted by signal at 7:52 AM on June 1, 2006


For what it's worth, I make a distinction between 'grey' and 'gray' which a lot of people don't.
posted by emmling at 8:13 AM on June 1, 2006


I'd find "turquiose" a far easy colour to imagine reasonably accurately than a vague description of "red, with some black, blue, and a touch of white." The latter sounds like a Jackson Pollack, not a gemstone.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:45 AM on June 1, 2006


I'm with fff. I can't imagine "red, with some black, blue, and a touch of white" at all. I don't understand why you'd mention both the black and the white.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:27 AM on June 1, 2006


I believe this is the emerging consensus about what tetrachromats are doing with that extra receptor that the rest of us can't, but two women I infer to have this condition (their fathers have a particular color-blindness) seem to have what I would call perfect color pitch.

In other words, they don't make distinctions between objects side by side which I cannot, but their matches of objects in hand with objects previously seen, and available only by memory, are incredibly accurate. This is a little more exotic than it may seem at first blush, since it at least requires compensating for different levels of illumination (hard!) and different color temperatures of ambient illumination (really hard!).

Birds (all?) are tetrachromats. If they are doing what my friends do, perhaps we can account for the evolution of soap-bubble colors in insects by reflecting that these colors change according to the angle between eye and light source, and would therefore make it more difficult for birds to learn the color identity of potential prey, and harder to pursue and catch them.

Chasfile, that is a wonderful comment. Maybe, after Bickerton, we could speculate that all contemporary languages are pidgins, and that one candidate measure for distance of a language from its 'birth' is progress along the color continuum.
posted by jamjam at 1:18 PM on June 1, 2006


ontic: If you want to be freaked out, some people make the very appealing argument that the only way around the inverted spectrum problem (which you're asking about) and the zombie problem is to deny that such a thing as conscious experience actually exists. This is what painquale believes, and it's wrong, though, so don't worry too much.

Hey! I do too think that conscious experience exists! Qualia don't, though. (I like that we managed to get cited by louigi as antagonists on this.)

This is the type of question that I would normally write out a big long reply to, but I'm unfortunately on vacation right now and don't have the time. For now I'll link to this paper of Dennett's that will hopefully disabuse the OP of the notion that qualia exist, and will try to post here later in the week.
posted by painquale at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2006


Sorry if this isn't strictly relevant to the interesting discussion preceding, but as a colour blind person, I found it incredible when I found vischeck and I was able to show people what I saw.

The site simulates colour blindness, and I can't tell the difference between two pictures, whereas my colour okay friends say helpful things like "I can't believe you can't see these two are different" and the like.

Much easier than when people hold up a very red thing and ask what colour it is...
posted by itsjustanalias at 1:53 PM on June 1, 2006


All Dennett manages in that paper is to show that experience needs to be internally coherent and consistent, something akin to the 'isomorphism constraint' in the paper I linked to, in my earlier comment. The intersubjective ineffable residue of experience still remains.
posted by Gyan at 2:54 PM on June 1, 2006


I see your Ludwig and raise you Goethe.
posted by umlaut at 6:09 PM on June 1, 2006


ludwig_van writes 'I'm with fff. I can't imagine "red, with some black, blue, and a touch of white" at all. I don't understand why you'd mention both the black and the white.'

I was taught colors by painters, and that's the way they see colors, i.e.: by what pigments they'd mix to match them.
posted by signal at 7:04 PM on June 1, 2006


You either end up with Descartes' Theater or you don't. Most people deeply believe in Descartes' Theater, which, frankly, is terribly naive and simply false. This is not a denial of consciousness, but it's a denial of what most people think consciousness is. This whole notion of qualia just drives me up the wall. I haven't really participated in this discussion because I just don't have the patience or enough goodwill to do so.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:50 AM on June 2, 2006


Darius and robocop: Finally! I just thought I was super paranoid or something! My earlier variation of this was that everyone outside of my range of vision looked diffrently and when I looked at them, my brain told me to see them a certain way. I walked around for months bumping into things while looking out of the corners of my eyes!
posted by Suparnova at 2:38 PM on June 4, 2006


Someone once remarked to me that they thought it was really crazy that the image of the world we "see" on the back of our eyes is upside-down and then our brain has to correct that.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why that's silly and how it applies to this discussion.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:41 PM on June 4, 2006


This sentence is on the blue when you aren't looking at it.
posted by eritain at 11:15 PM on June 6, 2006


I was taught colors by stage managers, and that's the way they see colors, i.e.: by what gels they'd mix to match them.

Y'see?
posted by five fresh fish at 7:49 PM on June 7, 2006


I was taught colors by dogs :(
posted by ludwig_van at 3:27 AM on June 8, 2006


Also: Haven't you ever wondered if we really see the same colors as everyone else?
posted by eritain at 11:33 PM on June 8, 2006


Scientific America of the Mind did a report on synesthesia in their October 2005 issue:

Doesn't exactly answer your question, but interesting nonetheless.
posted by jmd82 at 8:17 PM on June 20, 2006


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